Technology in the classroom: Exploring the experience of secondary students using activity theory
Technology is an integral part of life in the senior secondary school classroom. The multiple and complex ways in which economic, social and political discourse and activity drive digital technology into the classroom are often framed in terms of the ‘transformation of education’ and ‘21st century skills’, configuring values and aspirations with technology. This thesis explores what digital technology means in the classroom. It moves from the ‘state-of-the-art’ and ‘state-of-the-possible’ to the ‘state-of-the-actual’; from the impact of singular IT artefacts to the experience of the students. It addresses the questions, what is the technology artefact that the students are using in the classroom? and, how do students engage with the technology artefact and the information artefact in the classroom? Four secondary schools in medium- to high-income areas of New Zealand participated in this qualitative study. Activity theory informed the research design and case analysis. Critical realism was used, via abductive and retroductive modes of inference, to make sense of the data and identify the structures and generative mechanisms underlying the use of technology in the classroom. To make sense of how the students use the technology in the classroom this thesis presupposes that learning is a function of information, and information is not coterminous with information technology. The students’ learning actions can be instrumental, cognitive or axiological, and the activity can be mediated by technology. The use of technology is initially rooted in practical operations. This thesis sets out to revindicate a wider understanding of the technology/tool in activity theory by revisiting the concept of functional organs. This conceptualisation reorients perspectives on processuality, emergence and causation to reach an understanding of the student and the technology working in unison as an organisation, which allows different possibilities of operations, of actions and of relationships. The findings of this study are that the technology in the classroom is ubiquitous spatially, almost every student has access to a device, software and the internet, and temporally, most students have a device to hand all the time. The technology can have a multiplicity of causes, the same effect can be performed with different combinations of technology, and a plurality of effects, the same combination of hardware and software can be used to perform different actions. Senior secondary students are responsible for selecting and structuring a combination of hardware and software to achieve the object of their activity. This structuring is generally seamless, and without tension or contradiction when the object of the activity is instrumental, or when the information items required by the student are simple and linear, such as examples of concepts or contextual information. On the other hand, when the students’ experiences of the information are within activities that work with complex principles, generalisations or procedures then the technology needs to allow that possibility of action. Some specialist software does allow that possibility, and enables the student to engage deeply with the information. Conversely, some technology can impact the students’ practices if the critical analysis required of the students is not supported by the analytical processes of the technology, which may encourage students to follow linear rather than dialectical or dialogical engagement with the information. This thesis concludes that the students are active in structuring their learning through creating organisations of themselves, the technology and the information as an emergent information system to achieve the goal of the learning action, which is embedded in the wider motivation of the learning activity.